“The meaning of the meaning” – the enduring appeal of Norman MacCaig

By Bruce Munro

Poet's Pub by Sandy Moffat. From left to right are pictured: Norman MacCaig, Hugh MacDiarmid, Sorley Maclean, Iain Crichton Smith, George Mackay Brown, Sydney Goodsir Smith, Edwin Morgan and Robert Garioch. The setting is an amalgam of the interiors of their favourite drinking haunts in Edinburgh: Milne's Bar, the Abbotsford and the Café Royal.
Poet's Pub by Sandy Moffat

The 'Poets' Pub' painting shows those writers known as the 'Big Seven' – arguably the most influential Scottish poets of the post-war era.

But of this group – Norman MacCaig, Hugh MacDiarmid, Sorley Maclean, Iain Crichton Smith, George Mackay Brown, Edwin Morgan and Robert Garioch – it is the work of MacCaig and Morgan which remains the most popular in Scottish schools.

In the run-up to Norman MacCaig's 100th birthday there's been a number of programmes celebrating MacCaig across the BBC, such as Fishing for Poetry with Billy Connolly, Aly Bain and Andrew Greig and a Culture Cafe special featuring an interview with MacCaig himself.

But what is it about his work which sees it endure from one generation of Scottish pupils to the next?

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Alexander and the Puggies

Alexander Mccall Smith on the Scots language and his part in the Precious and the Puggies collaboration. James Robertson talks about the processes involved in translating from English to Scots. James Robesrtson on Scots, education and Precious and the Puggies.

According to literacy advisor and former English teacher, Bill Boyd, the biggest factor keeping MacCaig alive in the classrooms is the accessibility of MacCaig's work. "There's very little you read of his and think 'I don't really get that'. For instance, Basking shark is about an encounter with a basking shark."

The pupils at Inveralmond Community High School in Livingston supported Bill Boyd. Sixth-year Kirsty enjoyed Visiting hour, MacCaig's reflection on the pain felt when a loved one is near death. "Everyone can relate to it, everyone can get the gist... I remember it every time I think about a hospital now".

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Fifth-year Alexander appreciates the approach MacCaig takes, "He doesn't try to go above our understanding of what it is, you feel he takes the reader's perspective into account".

This direct approach permeates through much of his work and did not come about by accident. MacCaig's early collections were influenced by the New Apocalyptic school, a form of surrealism. He was not, however, pleased with the response to this poetry:

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Seamus Heaney on Norman MacCaig

Seamus Heaney on the strengths of Norman MacCaig's poetry. Excerpt interview: Clare English speaks to the event organiser Katrina Brown, and artist Ross Sinclair about the part Glasgow played in the 1990's world art scene. Clare English talks to Katrina Brown, Director of Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art, about her role and aspirations for this year's festival.

This criticism affected the language and concepts he chose to use. For instance, when comparing his own work to that of his friend Hugh MacDiarmid, MacCaig noted that his own work was relatively free of references to the Bible or the Classics as he thought many in his audience would be unfamiliar with such allusions.

Light

For his friend and former colleague at Stirling University, Professor Rory Watson, MacCaig's short lyric poems are destined "never to go out of style because they're engaged with the world as it is, and full of amusing metaphors, such as frogs dying 'like Italian tenors'".

For poet Jackie Kay, it's not just MacCaig's ability to amuse she admires, but also his poetry's tendency to make you look at something simple in a different light.

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Lanark - Cathedral

Alasdair Gray reads an abridged excerpt from the Cathedral chapter of Lanark. For the last thirty years of his life, Hugh MacDiarmid lived in a small cottage near Biggar. After his death, his friends and supporters put it to use as a "living museum," where writers could live and work. Author James Robertson takes us inside. Alasdair Gray reads an abridged excerpt from the Cathedral chapter of Lanark.

As a performer, MacCaig had a great ability to make an audience laugh, as can be heard in the interview he recorded with his friend, fiddler Aly Bain, or in the reminiscences of his friends including Bain, Andrew Greig or Billy Connolly in Fishing for Poetry.

This lightness of touch was occasionally a point of criticism, but MacCaig felt strongly that art did not necessarily have to be serious in tone:

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Landscape

Assynt landscape
Assynt by Bichologo

MacCaig is, for many, closely associated with Assynt in Sutherland. He spent every summer living just outside the village of Lochinver with the the mountains, lochs and beaches around the area.

John Miller teaches English in Ullapool High School, the school attended by pupils who live in Assynt. Unsurprisingly he finds that his pupils engage with the work as it's one that "they're seeing every day out of the bus window or they've climbed Suilven".

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What was it that MacCaig was able to draw out of his trips to Assynt?

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Norman MacCaig on Assynt

Norman MacCaig on the inspiration he draws from Assynt in Sutherland. Excerpt interview: Clare English speaks to the event organiser Katrina Brown, and artist Ross Sinclair about the part Glasgow played in the 1990's world art scene. Clare English talks to Katrina Brown, Director of Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art, about her role and aspirations for this year's festival.

But MacCaig could also be inspired by the urban landscape. His home for the majority of the year was Edinburgh and it was captured as the following on a winter evening:

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November night, Edinburgh

Norman MacCaig reading 'November night, Edinburgh' Excerpt interview: Clare English speaks to the event organiser Katrina Brown, and artist Ross Sinclair about the part Glasgow played in the 1990's world art scene. Clare English talks to Katrina Brown, Director of Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art, about her role and aspirations for this year's festival.

Scottish

At Higher level, it's a requirement that pupils study at least one Scottish text. As a Scottish writer, MacCaig can be used to meet this quota.

And MacCaig's use of English instead of Scots, says Bill Boyd, makes it easier easier for pupils to read compared to poets who wrote in Scots, such as Robert Burns or Hugh MacDiarmid.

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Character

According to some of the school pupils currently studying MacCaig at Inveralmond Community High School, his Scottishness isn't something they actively consider when reading his work. Rather it is MacCaig's tackling of universal themes that they find engaging.

MacCaig's eye stretched far beyond Scottish shores. Indeed, some of the most popular poems studied in schools took their inspiration from his travels abroad:

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Assisi

Norman MacCaig reading 'Assisi'. Excerpt interview: Clare English speaks to the event organiser Katrina Brown, and artist Ross Sinclair about the part Glasgow played in the 1990's world art scene. Clare English talks to Katrina Brown, Director of Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art, about her role and aspirations for this year's festival.

Of the MacCaig poems he's read, Ryan, a sixth year at Inveralmond, found Assisi the least straightforward. "People are less religious now, they might not know who St Francis of Assisi was, so we needed more help with it. But metaphors like 'ruined temple' still get through."

MacCaig remarked he liked individuals rather than mankind as a species, and certain people were a source of inspiration to him. Some he knew well; others, like the policeman he observed in New York, were just glimpsed in passing:

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Grief

The life's work of MacCaig is, by any standard, a hugely impressive legacy – one that speaks for itself. He skillfully produced many different types of poem and all are timeless in their own way.

Some may favour MacCaig's playfulness, for others it might be how he evocated certain landscapes. For others, it's those poems MacCaig produced as he grew older and began to lose those close to him – work that is full of grief – that lingers most.

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Norman MacCaig on effect of death on his work

Norman MacCaig on the effect of death on his work and reading 'Notes on a Winter Journey' and 'Memorial'. Excerpt interview: Clare English speaks to the event organiser Katrina Brown, and artist Ross Sinclair about the part Glasgow played in the 1990's world art scene. Clare English talks to Katrina Brown, Director of Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art, about her role and aspirations for this year's festival.

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